The Individual Artists
by Justin Glanville
Feb 24, 2003
Like most independent artists living in New York City, Aviva Geismar spends much of her time thinking about money.
It is not cheap to fund the dance pieces she choreographs for her dance troupe, Drastic Action. Space must be rented, costumes and sets designed and, if possible, dancers paid. In addition, dozens of administrative expenses always crop up while she is developing her pieces.
Income from her second career as a massage therapist pays some of her artistic bills. She also benefits from donations from friends and supporters and a pool of dancers willing to work for little or no money.
And every once in a very long while, she wins a grant. The largest was from the Bossak/Heilbron Foundation, a private charity, for $3,500. The others have been much lower, in the range of $500.
"So many people are applying, and there's so little money there," says Geismar, who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "It's really kind of a crap shoot. A lot of it is luck."
Indeed, analysts of the arts say grants to individual artists are becoming increasingly scarce. Major funding sources, both public and private, are awarding their already limited grant money to nonprofit organizations with 501(c)3 status, including museums, dance companies and theaters.
"There are fewer and fewer grants available for individual artists," says Matthew Deleget, senior program officer in information and research at the New York Foundation for the Arts, a clearinghouse for grants to artists throughout the state. "The number of programs for individuals is a lot less than for organizations."
The New York Foundation for the Arts recently completed a comprehensive study of public and private grants available to individual artists throughout the country. About 1,900 cash grants go directly to artists each year — a small number considering that there are 1.6 million people in the U.S. who describe themselves as artists.
Although there is no corresponding study of grants to groups, Deleget says they receive not only more awards than individuals, but for far larger dollar amounts.
The disparity is evident in the grant-making policies of the New York State Council on the Arts. With a total budget of $50 million, it is the largest public grant-maker in the state. This year (fiscal 2002-2003), it is giving $2.3 million to individuals and nearly 20 times that amount — $43.5 million — to groups.
In addition, the weak economy has also caused some private foundations to cut their funding to artists. For example, the Jerome Foundation, which makes grants to individuals and organizations in New York City and Minnesota, cut grants by $200,000 this year, nearly ten per cent of its awards budget.
Artists themselves are beginning to feel the crunch.
"It's been most severe in the last two years since the stock market crash," says Aaron Landsman, 33, a playwright and director in Brooklyn. "A lot of foundations lost their endowments."
Maureen Brennan, 36, an installation and performance artist in Brooklyn, has learned to produce her work with virtually no grant support at all.
"If you're working hours on a grant you have a small chance of getting, it's taking time away from other projects," she says.
Instead, she relies on her professional relationships with small, downtown producers to develop her pieces. One small theater, Voice and Vision, recently selected her for its lab series, which has allowed her to hone her latest project. Like Geismar, she also relies on support from donors and has a day job, teaching.
"Grants are nice icing on the cake," she says. "But to depend on them solely to put work up would be suicide."
According to Deleget and some artists, the current paucity of public grant support for individuals can be traced partly to the so-called culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Conservatives in Congress sought to abolish the National Endowment for the Arts after it funded exhibits of controversial work by Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano and others. In the end, the endowment was spared but its budget was slashed and it was forbidden to make grants to individual artists (with the exception of creative writers and folk musicians).
The controversy had a ripple effect across the country. State arts councils, in particular, became wary of funding individual artists whose work might be deemed offensive. Rather than risk having their budgets slashed or eliminated, Deleget says, they are funding uncontroversial projects: arts education programs in schools and well-established museums and dance groups, for example.
"It's easier, it's less controversial, to fund organizations," Deleget says. "They tend to be safer and more structured."
Schwartz, of the New York State Council on the Arts, says the culture wars affected other states' public arts funds more than New York's. The New York council's funding for individuals has held steady at about five per cent of the total budget for the past decade, he says.
But is that enough? Does New York, at the city or state levels, have a responsibility to provide more support for individual artists?
Schwartz says no. It would be nice to give artists more, he says, but the council's funds are limited and its focus on groups is justified.
"Groups have these enormous budgets, and there are so many," Schwartz says. "We fund 16 different disciplines — dance, music, theater. Not that there aren't a lot of individual artists with needs, but that's just one area."
In fact, he says, he's proud of the council's level of funding for individuals. "Our individual artist funding is by far the biggest of any state. It's not where we'd like it to be, but nothing is what we'd like it to be."
Artists, not surprisingly, say New York government could and should be doing more to nourish the work of independents.
They recognize that money is tight at present, and that the arts, for better or worse, are not a top priority. "It's hard for artists to say you should give us money over a soup kitchen or a school," says Landsman, the Brooklyn playwright.
He believes there are alternatives, however — subsidized studio space, for example.
"The real estate situation in New York makes it incredibly difficult for individual artists," Landsman says. "The city could help that more easily than it could give out extra cash."
Brennan, the performance artist, suggests the city could permanently donate conference halls and board rooms in government-owned buildings to be used as public rehearsal space.
In the meantime, one organization, The Field, is helping visual artists in the city qualify for grants ostensibly earmarked for organizations. Artists who are members of The Field can use its 501(c)3 status to apply for grants without having to form nonprofit groups of their own.
It also offers workshops and classes, giving independent artists — who typically work in isolation — a chance to meet each other and network. "When artists are by themselves, they feel powerless," says Diane Vivona, the Field's executive director. "If you get people together, they're talking about issues and they realize how much they know between them."
What is the future of funding for individual artists in New York?
At the state level, Schwartz of the New York State Council on the Arts expects a slight increase in next year's budget, but the weak economy makes it unlikely that the rise will be significant. For the same reason, foundations probably won't be increasing their giving — to individuals or organizations — anytime soon.
Still, New York artists will soldier on. "It's not a hospitable environment to be an artist, because it's such an expensive place to do anything," says Geismar. "But the most exciting work in this country is happening here."
New York State Council on the Arts
Publicly funded agency providing grants to nonprofit groups and individual artists.
New York Foundation for the Arts
Devoted to providing grants and logistical support for individual artists throughout New York State. Site features a national database, NYFA Source, of awards for individuals.
Organization that provides networking opportunities for individual artists and allows them to apply for grants usually intended for groups.
The Jerome Foundation
Private foundation providing grants to emerging creative artists in New York City and Minnesota.
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